All meals come with a view of Japan
8610 Kennel Way, San Diego
You feel a little awestruck just walking around here. This is Scripps, maybe the biggest concentration of brainpower west of Harvard Square. Everyone has to have a PhD to even get in the door, seems like. They practically own their own navy, half a dozen research ships, including the FLIP ship, the one that leaves port horizontal, then sinks one end and becomes a floating sonar buoy.
I’ve just been visiting my friend Fred. He can’t tell me what he does. Underwater stuff. Hush-hush. So, actually it was a pretty boring visit. I end up walking south along “Charles F. Kennel Way.” My aim: the #30 bus on La Jolla Shores Drive, to get me back downtown.
This is when El Niño kicks in. Rainstorm races in off the ocean. Pours down like on a movie set. I look around for shelter. All I see is this modern, steel-and-wood building with an auditorium, and up some stairs next door, bunch of people sitting at tables yakking away. And, eating? I leap up the stairs and head for shelter in the entrance. Now I see the sign: “Caroline’s Café.”
You get a shot of discipline before you can eat
I rush into the doorway. About to enter when I see another sign: “House Rules: Please do not sit until you and your party have ordered with a number. Please do not move patio furniture. Shirt/shoes required. No exceptions!”
Wow. Then there’s a second sign, on a sandwich board. “Please order first before taking a table. Tables are reserved for customers with an order # !”
And on and on. What is this, Scripps Institute or a Reform Institution for Wayward Oceanographers?
I drip into the counter area anyway. Actually, it’s light, bright, cool, Scandinavian, blond wood walls, white plastic tables and chairs.
Gal, Sarah, stands behind the counter. They have a specials board with items such as grilled chicken street tacos, quiche of the day with bacon and goat cheese, soup of the day, chicken-tortilla, garbanzo bean w/turkey. But no prices on them.
Sarah says forget the chicken-tortilla soup. The chef dropped the bowl this morning. Now they have a veggie-soup replacement. I ask for it anyway. To warm me up. Soup costs $6.95 (it comes with a bun). So by the time I have bought a coffee ($2.75 with refills), I’m already lighter by a Hamilton.
Not the cheapest, but this steaming hot veggie soup warms the cockles of my heart.
I check the regular menu. Looks, well, healthy. Breakfast has things like “Caroline’s parfait” (a mix of granola, berries, and yogurt, $6.25), Mediterranean egg scramble, with feta, “local” tomatoes, basil, for $7.95. Sides of fruit or breakfast potatoes plus toast are included.
Caroline's Seaside Cafe, with a view
Buttermilk pancakes cost $8.50. Four more bucks and you can add two eggs and two strips of bacon. Problem: breakfast ends at 11:30. And it’s gone one o’clock already. But they have plenty of lunch choices, like the curried chicken-almond salad sandwich. It goes for $9.25. Not cheap, but does sound kinda delicious.
They also have a raft of salads, at around $11. Most interesting-sounding: the fuyu persimmon and local ruby beet salad, with goat cheese and a sherry vinaigrette. Most expensive: pan-seared salmon salad with pineapple salsa, $14. Hope the students here have generous daddies.
This being a chilly day and me damp and shivering for the first time in a year, I like the sound of something hot and griddled. Lunch (which goes till 3 p.m.) features items such as the roasted butternut squash panini with cheddar and arugula ($10), tuna melt with caramelized onions ($9.95), and a chicken-pesto ciabatta ($9.50). Sign has good news: “Our meats and poultry are 100% hormone and antibiotic free.”
Hmm... Burger? The “basic” has caramelized onions with lettuce and toms. Costs $9. The “Seaside Café Burger” adds blue cheese and bacon, for $11. I go for it, even though, well, this is turning into an expensive little stopover. You do get organic green salad, house potato salad, or french fries with that. I go for the fries.
Plus another dose, in case you didn’t get it the first time...
When it comes, it does look massive. Sautéed onions slinking all over the tomatoes and lettuce, next to a mountain of thin fries. Under the bun, a smokin’ big patty, with an avalanche of blue-cheese crumbles, and three or four glistening tongues of bacon — good, thick strips, none of the crispy little shaved stuff you get in bargain-basement burgers.
All good, right?
Not quite. We have a problem — flavor. It just doesn’t seem to be there. The patty meat is boring, and I don’t get much kick from the bacon either, or even the blue cheese. I mean, it’s all fine, but it just doesn’t taste as interesting as it looks. Maybe I screwed around too long before I chomped in. Maybe when it was piping hot I would have got it at its best. Maybe ocean scientists just like their flavors mild. Because everybody else is polishing off their stuff, no probs.
Or is it just that the view of the ocean here is so fantastic that nobody notices the flavors? They say good views out restaurant windows can lead to so-so flavors on the plate. Not saying that’s the case here. The burger’s fine. Just that the flavors are underwhelming.
When I leave, the storm has headed inland and the sun’s bright, fresh light begs me to come out. Would I return? For sure, just for the chance to see clear to Japan on a day like this. Long as I can get past those bossy welcome signs.
The Place: Caroline’s Seaside Café, 8610 Kennel Way, La Jolla, 858-202-0569
Hours: 8:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m. daily
Prices: Caroline’s breakfast parfait (granola, berries, yogurt), $6.25; Mediterranean egg scramble (feta, tomatoes, basil, with fruit or breakfast potatoes, toast), $7.95; buttermilk pancakes, $8.50 (for $4 extra, add two eggs, two bacon); vegetable soup, $6.95 (bowl), $4.95 (cup); curried chicken-almond salad sandwich, $9.25; fuyu persimmon and local ruby beet salad, $11; pan-seared salmon salad with pineapple salsa, $14; roasted butternut squash panini, $10; tuna melt, caramelized onions, $9.95; chicken-pesto ciabatta, $9.50; basic burger, $9; Seaside Café Burger (with blue cheese and bacon), $11
Nearest bus stop: La Jolla Shores Drive at Paseo Grande